Most of the time, when I travel, “it’s all about the food” is my mantra. I’m happiest when I travel some place where not only do I enjoy eating the food but the local culture embraces and celebrates their cuisine. I believe this is why I keep returning to places in the Mediterranean and South East Asia. Sometimes though, the trip is not as much about the food as it is about the location and the other things it has to offer such as magnificent beaches or fascinating wildlife. In July we spent a week in Panama and I’d have to say it falls in the latter category.
Still, if there’s good food to be found or a market to check out, I’ll do my best find it. While we had our share of mediocre meals (my recommendation; stick with the Panamanian food instead of other “international” options), we did have a few good experiences I can share in case anyone finds themselves in Panama in search of a market or a meal.
The Panama City fish market is worth a trip if you like markets and a couple of restaurants we ate at, El Trapiche and Jimmy’s served up tasty Panamanian food. For the most part Panama City is a very cosmopolitan place, filled with skyscrapers and international cuisine owing to the influence of all the different people who came to help build the canal, or came later because of it. I thought because of this the international food options would be good, and I’m sure they are there, we just weren’t lucky enough to find them. We were also surprised that we saw virtually no street food while in Panama. Other notes about our food experiences are at the end of this post.
Mercado De Mariscos (Panama City Fish Market)
The Mercado de Mariscos was smaller than I expected it to be. I’d seen it in photos and on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show, but this market, built by Japan as a “gift” to the people of Panama, was only about half block square. Still, the fish were beautiful and inexpensive. Spiny lobsters which looked to be about 3 lbs each could be had for $6. There were shrimp of every size and shape and fish and shellfish already prepped for ceviche, vendors loudly hawking their wares, and very cool fish themed blue wrought iron doors.
We did a quick walk through of the market and then went upstairs to the Restaurante Mercado de Mariscos which overlooks the floor below. They serve primarily fresh seafood of course, and we ordered a mixed ceviche and a corvina al ajillio. With a couple of beers and a tip, the total was $19.
After watching Anthony Bourdain’s Panama episode of No Reservations, and his visit to this market, I knew we had to try the ceviche lady, so on our way out, we stopped at stall #2 and got a couple of cups of the Ceviche de Pulpo for $2 each. They were excellent and a great value compared to what we’d just had in the restaurant.
Our last meal in Panama, at Restaurante Jimmy, was one of the best ones we had in Panama. I had Sancocho al Pollo ($3.50), a wonderful chicken broth based soup with a piece of chicken and chunk of yucca in it. This is the unofficial national soup of Panama and I find myself wondering I haven’t been eating this all along. My husband ordered the “‘Angelo” style steak ($14.50) which was a very thick cut (maybe a culotte?) stuffed with slices of garlic and served sizzling on a hot cast iron platter. It was cooked a perfect medium rare and came with a salad and fries.
We even tried yet another local beer, the Soberana, bringing our total different Panamanian beers to five. The wine list looked decent and had some Spanish wines on it, not just the typical Chilean and Argentinean wines one normally sees here. The restaurant is large and busy with a mural of Greece on the wall (the owner is Greek). As far as we could tell, the other patrons seemed to be mostly families of locals. Restaurante Jimmy, near the Sheraton Panama City and across the street from the Convention Center.
For our first meal in Panama, we sought out a Panamanian restaurant I’d read about called El Trapiche which was about 4 blocks from our hotel (Toscana Inn). We found it without difficulty and it had what appeared to be mostly locals dining inside with a few tourists on the patio.
We opted to eat inside because of the AC as it was very humid and warm out even at 7:30 pm. I ordered the Corvina al Ajillo which would become my favorite go-to dish of the trip and David got the house specialty smoked pork chops. Everything was simply prepared but satisfying; I loved my fish, the rice was perfectly cooked and the little piece of fried plantain tasted of cinnamon. We tried two of the local beers, Atlas and Balboa (both good!) and dinner came to $25 for the food and 3 beers. El Trapiche, Via Argentina #10 at Avinida 2a B Norte, Tel: 269-4353.
We spent 3 days on tiny Isla Contadora and had one good meal and one mediocre one at a little local place across to the police station called La Fonda Clarita. A plate of food and a beer was $5 a person. We also ate twice at the restaurant of the Villa Romantica hotel (we did not stay there) and the food was decent, though a bit pricy. Two meals at Gerald’s were both average.
We had horrible “Italian” food at Cafe Pomodoro, near the Toscana Inn in Panama City. Really, avoid it.
If you’d like to read more about our trip to Panama, including more photos of snorkeling, whale watching, jungle walks and the Panama Canal, please check out my travel blog’s Panama page.